Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Watersby Donald Bogle
No other star of the twentieth century reimagined herself with such audacity and durable talent as did Ethel Waters. In this enlightening and engaging biography, Donald Bogle resurrects this astonishing woman from the annals of history, shedding new light on the tumultuous twists and turns of her seven decade career in music, on Broadway, in Hollywood, and
No other star of the twentieth century reimagined herself with such audacity and durable talent as did Ethel Waters. In this enlightening and engaging biography, Donald Bogle resurrects this astonishing woman from the annals of history, shedding new light on the tumultuous twists and turns of her seven decade career in music, on Broadway, in Hollywood, and beyond.
Bogle traces Waters's life from her poverty-stricken childhood to her triumphant rise in show business, detailing her successes with recordings like "Stormy Weather" and "Am I Blue?"; her notorious feuds with stars like Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne; her professional relationships with Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and other entertainment legends; and her various, tempestuous love affairs. In addition, Bogle explores Waters's ongoing racial battles and growing paranoia, and the significance her highly publicized life had upon audiences unaccustomed to the travails of a larger-than-life African American woman.
Wonderfully atmospheric, richly detailed, and drawn from an array of candid interviews, Heat Wave vividly brings to life a major cultural figure of the twentieth century—a charismatic, complex, and compelling woman, both tragic and triumphant.
Biographer and film historian Bogle (Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, 2005, etc.) returns with an encyclopedic life of Ethel Waters (1896–1977), singer, actress and trailblazer.
The author leaves few stones unturned in this massive but often mesmerizing work. Virtually every character earns at least a paragraph or two of back story, including all backup singers and sidemen on Waters' recordings and nightclub appearances. Bogle tracks his subject's life precisely and carefully. As the text progresses, it becomes more and more evident that Waters has so enthralled Bogle that he operates almost like her posthumous press agent. He begins in 1950 as the aging, overweight Waters, her career on a downturn, waits to go out for her first scene inA Member of the Wedding, the role that turned the ignition key for the second major surge of her career (it led to numerous TV and film appearances). Bogle then shifts to Chester, Penn., Waters' birthplace, and the incredible story commences. Waters' rise to stardom is a classic rags-to-riches story. She was a frail yet sexy young woman (known in nightclubs as "Sweet Mama Stringbean") with a voice that, in the author's view, changed popular music. The author tells us about her heroes (Ma Rainey principal among them), her rivals (whom she often treated ferociously) and her successors (Lena Horne wasnot a fan). Bogle also frequently defends Waters, who was irascible backstage, on film and TV sets; he finds cultural and biographical explanations, but she was a handful. The author deals delicately with her sexual interests, which included both genders.
A lush and often lyrical valentine to an extraordinarily talented and complicated artist.
The New York Times
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Heat WaveThe Life and Career of Ethel Waters
By Donald Bogle
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2011 Donald Bogle
All right reserved.
Two Women, Two Cities
IN THE SMALL HOUSE on Franklin Street in Chester, Pennsylvania, Louise Anderson was frightened, nervous, bewildered. She was pregnant and had gone into labor and would soon deliver a child. No doctor was with her. No midwife. Just her Aunt Ida and, at the crucial moment, a woman in the neighborhood to assist with the birth. Louise must have asked herself how this could have happened. She had always been religious, reading her Bible and living very much by the tenets of her faith. She even had dreams of one day becoming an evangelist. Of all her mother's children, Louise had shown the most promise. But now she was in pain and basically alone. She had no husband, no boyfriend. She still knew nothing about sex. There had just been a terrifying encounter with a young man she barely knew. What would she now do with her life? How would she care for this child? Those were questions she must have asked then and in the future. But on that dayOctober 31, 1896Louise Anderson, despite her fears, gave birth to a baby girl. Louise herself was only thirteen years old, by some accounts, a few years older, by others. She named the baby Ethel.
Those were the circumstances of Ethel Waters' birth; circumstances that both she and her mother, Louise Anderson, relived in the years that followed. From the very beginning, nothing came easy for Ethel. There were no happy celebrations of her arrival into the world, no bright smiles and hearty laughter, no shouts of congratulations to her mother. Instead she would always bear the stigma of being born "illegitimate." Yet, ironically, Waters would turn the stigma and shame into a badge of honor. She'd take pride in the fact that she had overcome it and survived.
The way in which she was conceived, however, was, as Ethel Waters herself would tell it, a harrowing experience. One day an eighteen-yearold, John Waters, had come to the home where Louise lived with her mother and siblings. Only Louise and her sister Vi were in the house.
For some time, John Waters, who had cast his eye on Louise, had asked her sister if Louise was a virgin, if she had been "broke in" yet. Left alone with her, he grabbed Louise. When she resisted his advances, he threw her down and threatened her at knifepoint. Before the day ended, John Waters had raped her and gone on his way. As overblown as the story may sound, it appears to be true. The domestic situation that Ethel had been born into was hardly a calm one. The same could be said of the racial politics of the nation in which she grew up.
IN THE YEAR OF ETHEL'S BIRTH, America was a sprawling nation with wide-open spaces, connected by its railroads and its newspapers. The major news event of 1896 was that William McKinley, a Republican, defeated Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan to be elected president of the United States. For the Black pop lation, presidents came and went, but not much changed in their daily struggles in a racially divided nation; struggles to find employment and make a decent living; struggles for achievement and recognition; struggles to combat a political system of vast inequities and injustices. In the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of "separate but equal," which in turn led to the rise of Jim Crow laws in the South.
Three years later the National Afro-American Council called on Black Americans to have a day of fasting in protest of lynchings and racial massacres. In 1896, 78 lynchings of Black Americans were reported; in 1897, 123. In 1901, the nation was horrified to learn that President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York. Afterward, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn into office, and several months later, the South was outraged because the Negro leader Booker T. Washington dined at the White House at the invitation of Roosevelt. The United States was openly segregated in the South; other forms of discrimination and segregation existed in the North.
Yet Chester, the city of Ethel's birth, had been fairly progressive. In the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, Chester, located along the Delaware River about fifteen miles south of Philadelphia, was a thriving urban area. Its long history stretched back to 1644, when it was a Swedish colonial settlement called Finlandia at one time and Upland at another. In 1682, William Penn had landed in Pennsylvania on the ship Welcome and renamed the area Chester, after the city in England. In the mid-1800s, Chester had also been a first stop on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves from nearby Delaware and the Chesapeake Bay area seeking freedom in the North. In 1857, a bloody battle had taken place between twelve fugitive slaves and ten slave hunters. From Chester, the slaves could be taken to Philadelphia. There, at the city's Arch Street wharf, horse-drawn wagons carried the runaways to parts of New Jersey. Chester's shipyard also supplied ships for the Union during the Civil War.
By 1880, the city was a bustling shipping center. The Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company provided employment for many residents. Early in the twentieth century, the Scott Paper Company came to town. So did the Ford Motor Company, an oil refinery, and a chemical manufacturing plant. Because of these industries and the consequent economic growth, immigrants from Poland and Ukraine moved to the city in search of work. So did Blacks from the South, hoping not only for economic advantages but also opportunities for an education and a better lifestyle.
Even more migrated to nearby Philadelphia, a far more developed and sophisticated area with a storied history.
Excerpted from Heat Wave by Donald Bogle Copyright © 2011 by Donald Bogle. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Donald Bogle is one of the country's leading authorities on African Americans in Hollywood. He is the author of the groundbreaking Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films; the acclaimed biography Dorothy Dandridge; and Brown Sugar: Over 100 Years of America's Black Female Superstars. He teaches at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and at the University of Pennsylvania.
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